Des Moines — John Glenn's TV ads tell a lot about why he's having trouble catching up with front-runner Walter Mondale here in Iowa, where the 1984 election gets under way next week.
Senator Glenn's ads on Iowa stations are pretty tame. They show him talking about the need for better US education. They tell voters about Glenn's experience as an astronaut, businessman, Marine officer, and lawmaker.
But what they don't do is far more important: They don't sharply criticize Walter Mondale. And that's making it terribly hard for Glenn to cut into Mr. Mondale's estimated 2-to-1 lead here.
There are two reasons for this, and they are causing frustration among Glenn planners.
The foremost reason is that Mondale is seen here in Iowa as the ''hometown boy.'' He was raised only five miles from the Iowa state line in Elmore, Minn. As a youth, he had a paper route that included homes in Iowa. And when he was in the Congress, he was fondly known here in some quarters as ''the third senator from Iowa.''
So if Glenn, or one of the other candidates, hits Mondale too hard, the chances are great that the criticism could backfire.
That kind of problem doesn't trouble Glenn in New Hampshire. Up in the Granite State, Glenn is hammering away much harder. There, a local citizen is shown in a Glenn TV ad saying:
''I'm not sure I fully understand Mondale's policies because he's making so many promises in so many areas.'' At another point, the ad charges that Mondale is ''trying to be everything for everybody.''
Yet the Glenn team would be airing even tougher TV spots in New Hampshire if it were not for a second hurdle. That is Glenn's own public image as a hero-astronaut. Glenn's staff produced some extremely tough ads blasting the Mondale record, but found that when they were tested on a cross-section of voters, the viewers asked, in effect, ''Why is a hero like John Glenn getting involved in this kind of political business?''
All this has forced Glenn to play follow-the-leader in attacks on Mondale. When the Wall Street Journal dug into the potential cost of Mondale's political promises to various groups, Glenn happily waved a clipping of the story before an Iowa audience. When the Philadelphia Inquirer printed a story headlined ''Irregular Mondale Funding Admitted,'' Glenn called reporters' attention to it, and his staff provided copies.
Letting others go first in the criticism of Mondale takes the onus off Glenn for talking about it, his staff hopes, and provides a way to dent Mondale's shining armor here in Iowa.
With just a week to go before the Iowa Democratic caucuses convene in 2,495 precincts the night of Feb. 20, the consensus forecast is that Mondale should easily retain his front-runner status.
The eight Democratic contenders got on the same stage over the weekend for the final time before the voting. The occasion was a 21/2-hour debate sponsored by the Des Moines Register. But it was without surprises.
There were occasional potshots at Mondale - from Glenn, Reubin Askew, Jesse Jackson, Gary Hart. But there seemed little damage. And when former Florida Governor Askew suggested that Mondale had possibly profited from a natural gas pipeline deal that has been controversial in the Midwest, Mondale won a strong round of applause when he retorted:
''I have spent my whole life, Reubin, fighting for consumers. I have led an honorable and a decent public and private life. I have never permitted anything in my private affairs, including making a living, to interfere with the integrity of my position.''
It was just the kind of response, and the kind of crowd reaction, which makes the Glenn team pause when it wants to go on the attack against Mondale.
Here's a look at each candidate following the debate:
Walter Mondale. As the favorite, Mondale directed most of his fire at the Reagan administration. There are indications that Mondale already is looking ahead to the nomination, and the need to get support from the Democrats he is now battling.
John Glenn. While taking shots at Mondale, Glenn also turned much of his fire at Reagan. The debate probably did nothing to help Glenn move closer to first place.
Gary Hart. His performance got good marks from political observers, much as it did in the earlier New Hampshire debate. He was probably helped.
Alan Cranston. The California senator played his peace and jobs themes, but scored no breakthrough. However, Senator Cranston's excellent organization in Iowa is expected to capture a substantial vote for him.
Ernest Hollings. The South Carolina senator is concentrating most of his effort in New Hampshire, but he impressed Iowans during the debate with his quick wit.
George McGovern. The sentimental favorite of many Iowa Democrats, Mr. McGovern got the greatest applause when he asked for support to send the eventual nominee a message that the liberal wing of the party is alive and well.
Reubin Askew. He is courting the Roman Catholic vote on the basis of his stand in favor of a constitutional amendment to let Congress ban certain abortions.
Jesse Jackson. Again he surprised his audience with his wit and his speaking ability, but he has made little effort to get a big vote in Iowa.